Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11, from my 36th floor office in a Manhattan skyscraper, I gasped in disbelief at the smoking black hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Suddenly the other tower, the south tower, exploded in a horrifying fireball. I was too far away to hear it. But the imagery of that terrifying moment remains, to this day, razor sharp.
But while I think about that day often, I don’t worry about it. The security gaps that resulted in Islamic terrorists coming into this country, living openly, taking flight lessons and hijacking commercial airliners have long since been plugged (I think).
Meanwhile, new threats to national security have emerged, and they didn’t sneak into this country. They were born and raised right here, and live among us. I’m talking about fellow Americans whom the U.S. government considers a menace: heavily armed white supremacist and anti-government militia groups. They are the enemy within.
‘Most persistent threat’
Don’t take my word for it. Last fall, before the election and before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, here’s what then-President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security said:
“Ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups pose the most likely terrorist threat to the Homeland, with Domestic Violent Extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat.”
Who are these “Domestic Violent Extremists”? The report goes deeper: “Racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) — will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
Again, this was a Trump administration report issued before the election and before the deadly attack on the Capitol.
FBI Director Christopher Wray — hand-picked for the job by Trump and kept on by President Biden — had this to say in Congressional testimony earlier this year, after Jan. 6:
“The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon,” he said.
Jan. 6 insurrection
The Jan. 6 attack was the worst assault on Washington since British troops torched the Capitol and White House in 1814. It is thugs like the ones from that day, who built a noose and scaffolding, stormed the building with plastic restraints and battered police officers, that keep security officials up at night. It is their brethren, like the goons who plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year and the swastika-waving neo-Nazis who terrorized Thomas Jefferson’s Charlottesville in 2017 that are today a major threat to our national security.
In fairness, violence by left-wing extremists can hardly be discounted. It includes everything from attempts to derail trains to stop the construction of oil pipelines, to attacks on police officers or their facilities. Several such incidents occurred in the aftermath of last year’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Yet, data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows three times as many incidents perpetrated last year by right-wing elements. An analysis of that data by the Washington Post shows a clear, present and accelerating danger.
“The surge reflects a growing threat from homegrown terrorism not seen in a quarter-century,” the analysis shows, “with right-wing extremist attacks and plots greatly eclipsing those from the far left and causing more deaths.”
CSIS’s database shows 73 far-right “incidents” in 2020, alone — or 1.4 per week –the highest since it began collecting data in 1994. Left-wing attacks, meanwhile, numbered a third as many: 25.
A broader data sample shows that this is no fluke. Since 2015, “right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities,” while “attacks and plots ascribed to far-left views accounted for 66 incidents leading to 19 deaths.”
One thing behind all this is the disturbing rise in disinformation, which is easy to generate, easy to spread and all but impossible to thwart. Yet another report, this one by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) — which oversees the vast 17-agency U.S. intelligence community — cites “narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol [and] conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Ominously, it adds that “conspiracy theories promoting violence will almost certainly spur some [domestic violent extremists] to try to engage in violence this year.”
Here’s a blunter, less diplomatic way of summarizing the ODNI’s report: Right-wingers continue to spread “the big lie” about the election, and still think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Donald Trump won.
Such “stop the steal” lies were clearly behind the attack. And somehow the pandemic — which at last count has killed 232 times more people than were killed on Sept. 11 — is, to many, a hoax. Even the former president himself, who got Covid and urges Americans to get vaccinated — “it is a safe vaccine and it is something that works,” he has said — is being drowned out by a continuous tidal wave of disinformation about this.
It’s hardly coincidental that the delta variant, case loads, hospitalizations and deaths are far worse today in red states with lower vaccination rates.
Lies and disinformation, it can be argued, are far more lethal than what happened on this day in 2001. And while we mourn those lost on that Sept. 11 — we’ve pledged to “never forget” — we must also never forget who and what threatens us on this one.